Reduce food waste one byte at a time

40% of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste.  

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Thanks to restaurant leftovers, spoiled household food, and unpurchased produce, Americans throw out roughly $165 billion in food each year. This discarded food forms the largest category of municipal solid waste in landfills–which releases billions of tons of greenhouse gasses. At the same time that we are wasting such high proportions of food, roughly 1 out of 8 Americans lives in a food-insecure household.

Food waste is an often under-addressed problem. To counter this, the USDA launched a program called the Food Waste Challenge. This encourages efforts to:

  • Reduce food waste by optimizing food usage, storage, and labeling.
  • Recover food waste by connecting donations to nonprofits.
  • Recycle food waste to feed animals or create compost or fertilizer.

Finding solutions for food waste is a surprisingly booming industry. Startups are popping up all around the country with innovative solutions. (If you’re interested, here are some in Boston.) I scoured the internet to pinpoint 4 particularly interesting companies fighting to reduce food waste.

Reduce: Spoiler Alert

 

Our technology platform facilitates food donations, discounted food sales, and organics brokering. We offer the relevant accounting and reporting systems to capture tax benefits and document important financial, environmental, and social metrics.

Every food business will end up with surplus food, and often that becomes shrink. Spoiler Alert is a Boston-based startup that enables food businesses to reduce shrink costs, gain tax benefits from charitable donations, empower employees with waste management tools, and help fight food insecurity by ensuring your excess food reaches nonprofits. They have two tools: Spoiler Alert Marketplace, which is a B2B online platform to enable food donations. Marketplace allows your business to list your surplus food and immediately connect to interested nonprofits. This helps with the “Recover” goal of the USDA. Spoiler Alert Enterprise is an accounting program to simplify food waste inventory. This program optimizes your inventory management, accounting, and donation tracking. With advanced systems like these, it’s easier than ever to reduce food waste.

Recover: Imperfect Produce

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In America, 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables grown don’t fit grocery stores’ strict cosmetic standards — the crooked carrot, the curvy cucumber, the undersized apple — usually causing them to go to waste. Imperfect’s mission is to find a home for these “ugly” fruits and veggies.

Fruit and veggies that look a little strange still taste exactly the same, but customers are conditioned to buy only the prettiest produce. Knowing that “ugly” produce won’t sell, supermarkets refuse to buy it, and it rots away on farms. Imperfect solves this problem by sourcing unpurchased produce directly from the farms and delivering it weekly or biweekly. Prices are 30-50% more affordable because farmers are more than willing to turn a previous loss into a slight profit with Imperfect. Produce is then packed up into custom boxes and shipped to your door. You can purchase 4 main varieties of boxes: Organic mixed, regular mixed, all veggie, or all fruit boxes. Boxes come from size small to extra large, and you can customize what’s inside. You can see all the produce that is supposed to be included and why it’s “Imperfect,” then change the quantities to ensure you receive the produce you want. Prices vary based on which items are included in the box each week. Families on SNAP benefits can purchase baskets at ⅓ the price–making healthy living more affordable for people below the poverty line. There are a variety of other startups similar to Imperfect that are making sure unused produce makes its way to people who will consume it.

Recycle: WISErg

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WISErg is focused on creating a revolutionary solution for diverting food scraps from landfills, composters, and digesters. It starts by using a WISErg Harvester to capture the nutrients in the food discard stream — one grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant at a time. Once stabilized in the Harvester, materials are transferred to a nearby WISErg facility, where they are processed into fertilizer.

So how does WISErg utilize 3 times the energy of compost while using 50% less emissions? Grocery stores and commercial kitchens start by purchasing a machine called a WISErg Harvester. The machine is odorless, pest-free, and easy-to-use.

It converts food scraps into a nutrient-rich slurry that serves as ingredients for fertilizer. This is different than composting because it can process all types of food scraps. (There are restrictions on what will compost well.) The resulting slurry is brought to a WISErg facility to be converted into it’s final form as liquid fertilizer for use on organic farms. This helps cut down on chemical fertilizer use by making organic fertilizer readily available and nutrient-rich. Integrated technology helps restaurants track their food waste to reduce overall shrinkage, also helping to fulfill the “Reduce” goal. 

The Future: WTRMLN WTR

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WTRMLN WTR makes cold-pressed watermelon juice from melons that cannot be sold in the store for aesthetic reasons. Hundreds of millions of pounds previously wasted watermelon now have the potential to be turned into delicious and hydrating juice. WTRMLN WTR is able to acquire these melons at a lower cost and create a new revenue stream for farmers.

Interestingly, the water is not necessarily marketed as being sustainable. It is positioned as a hydrating “sports” drink that can be delicious any time of day, as it is carefully crafted with juicy watermelons. The website and product design is fun, edgy, and fresh. If I had to guess why the founders chose not to push the sustainable aspect of their product, it would be be because they didn’t want WTRMLN WTR to be seen as an expensive, hippy, only-for-people-who-care-about-the-environment-a-lot product. They wanted it to appeal to the masses as a fun and fresh product for breakfast, working out, and hangovers. So while WTRMLN WTR’s brand ambassadors push this funky new product, they have been quietly saving 25 million pounds of watermelon from being discarded annually.

I see business models like WTRMLN WTR as a future of food waste sustainability. Technologies like WISErg and Spoiler Alert help manage food waste on a restaurant-by-restaurant scale. While Imperfect Produce is a brilliant idea, some consumers will still be averse to the ugly produce. Not everyone cares about sustainability enough to sacrifice the idyllic image of a centerpiece bowl full of shining, perfect fruit. However, products like WTRMLN WTR ride the wave of juicing popularity to quietly make a sustainable product go mainstream. This gives me hope that more products will find ways to address food waste while appealing to the general population.

Edit: BC Dining and Food Waste

After receiving a few comments about food at BC, I thought I’d add a few extra links about what BC Dining does about food waste. I’m actually in Sustainability Living Learning Community, so we’ve done a lot of research on this topic. BC Dining does a tremendous job of sustainably innovating, check out this surprisingly fascinating video to learn more. Here’s a nice Height’s article about the recent composting initiative in Mac.

As a capstone project for my Sustainability class, we surveyed the student body to find out that while 80% of students strongly see value in a recycling and composting system on campus, only 10% feel very confident in their knowledge of what can and cannot be recycled and composted. To help solve this, we created an educational video and a fun Buzzfeed quiz about recycling and composting in McElroy Commons (Mac). Check it out, and think consciously about your food waste!

10 comments

  1. CarbNatalie · ·

    I think this topic is highly interesting as it is clear by your post that we waste so much food. It was always told to me that I had to eat everything on my plate so as not to waste food, but what happens to all the other people and apparently grocery stores that do do this? I think these initiatives especially imperfect is highly interesting and could really produce change. Cool post!

  2. fayehubregsen · ·

    Love the punny title! You kicked off your post right away with a staggering figure that drives the point home regarding the market failure that these businesses aim to address. I like how you used the block quote after each video to highlight the key takeaways about that particular platform. As good a thyme as any for companies to innovate the food waste space.

  3. Wow! I had no idea how many digital companies were out there that aimed to tackle the huge food waste problem. I wonder if BC is doing anything in an effort to reduce this problem. I would imagine there are huge amounts of waste produced by uneaten/ugly food. I know at some grocery stores, such as Wegmans, they use near expired food to make ready-to-eat meals.

    PS have you ever heard of the term “freegan”? (https://www.google.com/search?q=freegans&oq=freegans&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.1811j0j1&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8)
    It’s a pretty interesting way people are looking at the food waste issue- not something I would personally do but nice to see a different perspective.

    1. katherinelgold · ·

      Thanks to the comments of you and Alexis, I added a section to my post about BC Dining’s sustainable innovations! I actually work at Wegmans, and we set up partnerships with local zoos to take expiring produce, animal shelters to take aggregated broken bags of dry food, and soup kitchens to take perishables.
      Freeganism is a super interesting concept! I also could not do it personally but with all the food we waste, it honestly wouldn’t be difficult to have a steady stream of food

  4. alexisteixeiraa · ·

    This is a great post that certainly helps to shake us from the “BC Bubble”. I often find myself complaining of the monotony of food selections in the dining halls, but fail to recognize the privilege and fortune to always have access to food. This piece not only shined a light on a really important problem, but also gave really tangible ways for us to help. I also loved the part about recovering produce. I never knew that there were sad and rejected produce that supermarkets don’t buy and what an genius way of helping solve two problems at once. All of these companies are helping solve a really important problem and I am sure there will be more to come. Thank you for such an awesome post!

    1. katherinelgold · ·

      Thanks Alexis! Check out the edit I made to the blog after reading the comments from you and Gabrielle, it details more about what BC Dining does to minimize food waste!

  5. viquezj · ·

    Excellent initiative to use today’s technology to increase the recycling rate and take care of our resources. Something we know for sure is that our resources are limited, and we should be more conscious about how much waste we are producing which could actually be reused in something else. If we all recycle our waste, and large food chains start following the same trend, soon enough we will be able to see the benefits.

  6. Nice post. Maybe could have/ should have been focused a bit more on digital/ social media, but interesting nonetheless.

  7. lesleyzhou · ·

    Thank you Katherine for your awesome post, probably one of my favourites this semester! I truly think that sustainability, especially regarding food, is such an important issue to tackle when solutions to food wastage can so easily be solved/donated. I personally think Spoiler Alert is a witty startup company for it pushes even those who are not motivated to be sustainable to be more incentivized (since they’ll be able to save on tax dollars). I found it particularly interesting that you mentioned Imperfect Produce and WTRMLN because my friend just this weekend told me he was disappointed to find out most farmers threw away “unappealing looking fruit” because they knew big buyers wouldn’t even try to sell to customers…and while I agree WTRMLN has a greater appeal because the aesthetics of the watermelon is discounted due to its juice form, I still see value in Imperfect Produce because it still offers low-income families with affordable fresh, healthy fruit, ultimately still contributing to solving the food wastage problem. Again, thank you so much for your post Katherine, I love getting updates on environmentally-friendly startups!

  8. zfarkas17 · ·

    Really interesting post! It is too easy to forget the food problem going on in not only the world but our own backyard. I always liked seeing bakeries deliver their bread at the end of a day to homeless people or organizations that can distribute it. It is good to know that there are companies dedicated to finding a way to make food more accessible to everyone and at a more fair cost. I particularly like the idea of shipping the imperfect fruits and veggies, it is amazing how conditioned we have become to only want standardized produce. Thank you for posting this.

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